Sunday, 30 December 2012

My books of the year

Once, I stormed through books. I could get through a biggish novel a week, or a couple of slimmer volumes. I'd pick up old favourites between the new ones, and get through them on semi-auto in a day or two. These days, I've slowed down, partly because I have less free time, but more, I suspect, because I use my free time differently. Still, I've managed thirty-ish this year, which I think is reasonably good going, especially considering my habit to put a book down half-read and get distracted by another. I've been reading 'proper' books, as well as downloading them to the Kindle app on my phone. These are some of the books I've enjoyed most this year; some are new, some are older ones I've discovered.

Rivers of London and Moon Over Soho by Ben Aaronovitch (both 2011)
I love Aaronovitch's Doctor Who work from the late 80s and early 90s, but he disappeared from the Land of Fiction for a while. In recent years he has returned, and made a big splash with his Peter Grant novels. I read the first at the beginning of the year, and the second just a few weeks ago. They're tremendously enjoyable, urban fantasy that doesn't take itself too seriously, with a genuinely original approach to the science of magic. Easy reading, some people turn their noses up at them, but I find them some of the best fantasy of recent years. Book three, Whispers Underground, sits on my bookshelf in wait, and book four is said to be on the way.

Yesterday's Son by A. C. Crispin (1988)
I've read a few Trek novels this year. Most have been fairly forgettable, particularly the modern ones, and a couple I didn't finish. I enjoyed Christopher Bennett's second DTI book, Forgotten History, a great deal, but my favourite of the year has been this slim novel from the days when the original series ruled supreme and Picard was just getting started. It's a famous adventure concerning Spock's son, plucked from the distant past on a world were Spock once had a saucy encounter (check out the episode All Our Yesterdays). I couldn't help but imagine Zar as being played by Zachary Quinto.

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (2012)
It's been a good year for Pratchett. Two novels published (haven't read Dodger yet - sorry Tel), a collection of his short fiction, A Blink of the Screen, showing how he started out, and news of an upcoming TV series featuring the City Watch. Sadly, his health continues to deteriorate, so we must appreciate his work while we can. It's also been a good year for Baxter, with a Doctor Who novel, The Wheel of Ice, kicking the past Doctor range into gear again, and the Stone Spring trilogy coming to a close. My favourite for them both, though, has been their first collaboration, the reality-hopping adventure The Long Earth. It's an easily readable adventure that combines their strengths to produce something thought-provoking, funny, and expansive.

City by Clifford D. Simak (1952)
The edition I have is actually from 1980, and the stories within were first published between 1944 and 1951. This is bare bones, solid science fiction, very much of its time and very American in its outlook. It paints an intriguing picture of a world under the control of dogs, in which humanity is extinct. The dogs recount myths of Mankind, who cannot possibly ever have existed, while their robots tend to them as nature intended. It's a fascinating look at how humanity is reshaping the world, and how this will have consequence beyond even our own time on this planet. Brimming with imagination, it takes in extradimensional realms, hyper-evolved ants, psychic mutants and the ethics of changing ones body in order to live on Jupiter.

Wildthyme Beyond by Paul Magrs (2012)
The second book in Magrs's new Iris Wildthyme series, picking up where Enter Wildthyme left off. I enjoyed book one, but this feels more like a proper Iris adventure to me, exploring the very nature of myth, fiction, fandom and reality. There's a rollicking account of Iris's ever-changing origins, one that finally feels definitive, and a worlds-shaking quest through the wilds of Hyspero, one of my favourite fantasy worlds. It is, of course, very silly, and quite right too. Iris fans should also check out Obverse Books' second quarterly of the year, Lady Stardust, which mashes the Mistress of the Magical Bus with the songs of David Bowie.

Dark Horizons by J. T. Colgan (2012)
It's been a good year for Doctor Who novels. The publication schedule has been massively scaled back, but this has led to the novels becoming events. We've had Gareth Roberts's noveliation of Shada, and the aforementioned Baxter novel, but it was Jenny Colgan's eleventh Doctor novel that was the surprise hit for me this year. Full review here.

The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (2008)
This became my book for reading at work. Sometimes I like something that's all plot, easy to get through quickly. Othertimes, it's better to relax with something light of incident, and to just enjoy the beauty of the prose. Templeton is one of the latter. Groff grew up in Cooperstown, New York, and created Templeton as a fictionalised version of her home. Student Willie Upton returns home, pregnant by her professor, and is drawn into the legendary history, and historical legends, of her family and town, as she tries to discover the identity of her own father. Oh, and there's a monster in the lake, who has just died and sent the town into a sort of bemused mourning. Evocative of a feeling of truly belonging to a place, for good or ill, this mixes humour, romance and tragedy with just a hint of fantasy. Gorgeous.

Thirteen by Sebastian Beaumont (2008)
Another fantasy-tinged urban novel, although this one is set in Brighton, my home city (near as dammit). A semi-autobiographical novel, this told me more than I ever wanted to know about the everyday (or rather, every night) life of a cab driver. All but one of the peculiar cab-related incidents in this story genuinely happened to the author, or so it says. As the story develops, things move from being merely odd to otherwordly, and the protagonist's mental health erodes as the barrier between his life and his own subconscious break down. A downright odd book, and often a very funny one, it ends up as a haunting ghost story.

The Time Ships by Stephen Baxter (1995)
This was my first encounter with Baxter, the master of cosmic fiction. I read it not long after release, so I would have been eleven, maybe twelve. I picked up another copy this year, and remembered why I had adored it. The official sequel to the seminal The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, The Time Ships spans vast reaches of time, forwards, backwards and sideways, grappling with mind-warping ideas while always remaining readable, accessible and fun. I also read another sequel to Wells's classic, K. W. Jeter's 1979 proto-steampunk novel Morlock Night, recently republished. The title is easily the best part of this book. Stick with Wells and Baxter.

The Complete Ghost Stories of Charles Dickens (Wordsworth edition, 1997)
Some spooky winter reading. Every year I read A Christmas Carol, although this year I have instead opted to listen to Tom Baker read it. However, that is only the most famous of the Dickens ghost stories. I haven't read enough Dickens, but this volume collects extracts from his great novels and short stories alike. I picked it up in a cafe-bar-bookshop in Skopje, for staying in when the snow and ice became too much.


Thursday, 27 December 2012

WHO REVIEW: 7-X. The Snowmen


Victoriana makes Christmas feel more Christmassy, and Doctor Who more like Doctor Who. Following two mini-episodes to whet our appetites, finally the hour-long special arrives. It’s been months for us, but seemingly longer for the Doctor, who’s been sulking in the cloud layer since he lost Amy and Rory. The Snowmen presents the Doctor, and the series, with a fresh start. The show feels revitalised, with a new look, a new companion, and a new supporting cast.

In spite of the ongoing mystery that is Clara, The Snowmen is a fairly straightforward episode, and there’s nothing wrong with that. A fun, uncomplicated adventure, beautifully realised. Both of Smith and Moffat’s previous Christmas outings have embraced the fairytale ethos of their era more than the regular episodes, and this story continues in that vein. Although there are scientific trappings, this episode is an out-and-out fantasy. The Doctor lives in his TARDIS on top of a cloud, accessed by a ladder and hidden behind a wall of invisibility. It’s a beautiful image, emphasising the “anything’s possible” feel of the current series. Equally, the Snowmen themselves are visually stunning, fairytale monsters as creepy as hell (my poor sister really didn’t like those shark-toothed grins, and she’s twenty-four). As a threat, they’re fairly poor, as even the Doctor points out. They’re useless in the summer and can be defeated by thinking really hard, but they look great.

In fact, that’s something of a problem with the episode as a whole. Both the Doctor and the villains are on poor form here. Richard E. Grant is perfect as Dr. Simeon, putting in a surprisingly understated performance that is quite wonderfully sinister, while Sir Ian McKellen provides the ideal voice for the Great Intelligence. Who else guessed the villain’s identity? Really, for a fan, it was quite obvious, but the revelation that this was the Intelligence’s birth was unexpected. However, this mighty being is reduced to little more than a ghost, having been defeated by the power of a good cry. As a fairytale ending it works beautifully, but it makes the villains seem feeble and the Doctor little more than a bystander.

Indeed, the Doctor isn’t up to much in this episode. Thankfully, Matt Smith is excellent, as usual, and makes the Doctor seem far more impressive than he actually is. He excels at this quieter take on the character, while still being able to leap into the more manic, over-the-top style we’re more familiar with (the Sherlock Holmes moment in particular). However, if the Doctor is ineffectual, then this is just what is required by the story. This episode is about how the Doctor brings the best out in Clara, and how she reinvigorates him in return. To turn the Doctor around would require someone pretty damned special; happily, Jenna-Louise Coleman is more than up to the task. Her Clara is not just a (very) pretty face, but is fun, intelligent, creative and hugely confident. She’s a sparkling personality, but in the hands of a lesser actress could easily have become insufferable. Coleman makes Clara a character we’re desperate to get to know better, and it’s easy to see why the Doctor is too.

Coleman and Smith (sounds like a law firm) dominate proceedings so much, it’s hard for anyone else to make much of an impression. As noted, Grant and McKellen are both excellent in their roles, but feel very underused for such A-list names. Tom Ward barely gets chance to make an impression as Captain Latimer, although brother and sister actors Joseph and Elle Darcy-Alden are very impressive as his children. The Great Detective and her sidekicks get more screentime than in their debut, but even so, are in desperate need of a dedicated episode to explore them fully. Strax gets the bulk of their material, and supplies almost all of the genuinely laugh-out-loud comedy material, but Jenny and Vastra, both potentially fascinating characters, deserve a great deal more focus.

It would also be wise to turn a blind eye to the plot, which works on broad strokes but holds little water under scrutiny. Some apparent problems are possibly deliberate; if the Doctor wants to be left alone, why go to where three of his friends are living and give them his phone number, unless of course he subconsciously wants to be pulled out of his stupor. The one-word-test is utterly daft, and it’s a huge stroke of luck that Clara’s problem involved a pond and so tweaked the Doctor’s interest, but it provides a gorgeous scene and so can be forgiven. However, when the surprisingly shonky CGI ice-governess stalks the heroes, the characters’ oversights take the biscuits. Yes, the first visit to the TARDIS is always a major moment, but we were all shouting “Close the fucking door!” at the screen. One stupid oversight leads to Clara’s death, and while this was all necessary to move the plot forward, it could have been handled better.

All in all, though, The Snowmen is hugely enjoyable, and apart from the door debacle, any quibbles arose only after rewatching and over-analysing. This is a rich serving of Victorian whimsy, opening the door for new adventures for the Doctor and Clara and promising a new mystery to drive the series forward. Here’s to Series 7, Part 2, or whatever we’re calling it. Merry Christmas!

New looks: The Doctor now dresses in the Victorian style, as befits a man living in 1898; however, it looks like he’ll be sticking with the frock-coated look for the upcoming run. The purplish frock velevet frock coat and waistcoat give the elegance of the third or eighth Doctor, while the checked trousers and battered hat evoke the second (Troughton’s birdwatcher’s hat had a very similar silhouette to Smith’s Artful Dodger-styled topper). The bowtie returns when the Doctor gets his mojo back – before that, he wears a cravat, for the first time in a long while.
The TARDIS is looking pretty battered on the outside, but the interior has enjoyed a fantastic revamp. It’s perhaps less interesting than the Heath Robinson-styled madness of the previous design, but I find it far more effective, harkening back to the Brachacki’s hi-tec design for the original console room. Also, we get a revamped title sequence with both a spookier remix of the them tune, and a glimpse of the Doctor’s face for the first time since 1989.


Links: Vastra, Jenny and Strax first appeared in 6.7, A Good Man Goes to War. While the 19th century is Jenny and Vastra’s native era, Strax’s presence is a mystery, especially since he died during his previous appearance. The Doctor says a friend brought him back, and leaves it at that. Sontarans are clones, of course, so it’s not too much of a stretch for him to be recreated.
The Great Intelligence first appeared in 1967’s The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear. Not only does The Snowmen seemingly explain its origins, but also its decisions to invade with robot snowmen and to assault the London Underground. It also appeared in the direct-to-video spin-off Downtime – featuring Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (later met in 7.4, The Power of Three), as well as The New Adventures series and as the big bad in TDWP’s Season 37.

Hanky-Panky in the TARDIS: Jenna-Louise Coleman really is one of the most beautiful women ever to set foot in the TARDIS. However, let’s not overlook the gorgeous Catrin Stewart as sexy ninja lesbian maidservant Jenny. For those who like men, Smith is looking rather dashing in his new get-up, but the most handsome man in the episode is the lovely Tom Ward as Captain Latimer; sadly, I’m not sure I like him in a beard.

Best line:  “Sir, please do not noogie me during combat prep.”

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Is Santa Claus a god?

He has many names. Being a British household, we called him Father Christmas, and this is how he is known in many countries, be it as Papa Noel in Spain or Kaghand Papik in Armenia, rooted in ancient northern folklore. Some call him St. Nicholas, after the genuine Anatolian philanthropist of the 4th century, whose story has been combined with various mythical figures to provide the modern Saint Nick. In Dutch, he is Sinterklaas, the Good Saint, and this became Santa Claus when imported to America. German Protestants had the Christ-Child, or Christkindl, known also throughout Europe as Jususka or Gesu Bambino. This was a direct attempt to take belief away from Father Christmas, and seems to be an inversion of the biblical story of the wise men presenting the infant Jesus with gifts. This became Americanised too, and Christkindl became Kris Kringle, again stirred into the whole Santa Claus melting pot. Today, millions of children know him simply as Santa.

It makes sense for Christmas, a festival that has arisen from the mixing of Christian, Turkish, Roman, pagan and Scandinavian mythologies, to be represented by a figure whose own origins are a mash-up of various traditions. The Romans had Saturnalia, a festival dedicated to the great god Saturn, himself adapted from the Greek Titan Kronos. Saturnalia was a major Roman imperial holiday, and once the Empire became Christian, Saturnalia was transmogrified, over time, into Christmas. Other cultures had their own winter festivals, such as the Germanic/Scandinavian Yule, which itself became absorbed into the modern, secular Christmas. The focal figure of Yule was none other than Odin, the ancient, bearded chief of the gods.

So, there's the background. Whatever you want to call him, it's clear that Santa's precedents were with major gods in some of the ancient pantheons. Does that make the modern Santa a god? Well, look at is this way: what forms does the worship of a god take? There are prayers to him; every year, thousands of letters to Santa are written, even posted, asking for all manner of gifts from the great giver.

A god needs priests, or acolytes; thousands of men make their living by dressing as Santa Claus during the festive season. Children half-believe that these figures are the real deal, even though they know that Father Christmas is busy at the North Pole. These men become the worldly embodiments of Santa, representing him  in the everyday world.

A god needs temples; Santa has his grotto, to which children are taken to present their letters or sit on the knees of his priests, asking for their hearts' desires directly. A god should have a chariot; pulled by eight magical, flying steeds, the sleigh is Santa's chariot, conveying him to any point in the world all in the space of one night.

A god requires sacrifices, and demands certain modes of behaviour. We leave out mince pies and sherry, or cookies and milk, for Saint Nick, and carrots for his reindeer, while children, on the run up to Christmas, are told that Santa is watching them to see if they are "naughty or nice." They are warned that it's not a good idea to get on the naughty list this close to Christmas, and are threatened with a lump of coal instead of presents. In Germany, Austria and central Europe, it's not Father Christmas himself who meets out punishment, but the Krampus, aka the Grampus, or Bartle, or Pelzebock, a goblin-like monster. The Krampus seems to be the result of a separating out of the benevolent and malevolent aspects of the Father Claus character. Earlier traditions remain, in which the Krampus takes naughty children away in his sack, for punishment.

A god should be powerful; Santa Claus is omniscient, always aware of what children are doing and if they are behaving. He can go anywhere, in no time at all. He can fit down chimneys despite his huge girth, and can simply step into homes where no chimney exists.

Above all, a god needs believers. How many children around the world believe in Santa Claus? Hundreds of millions, surely, when taking into account the children of all the western nations. It's not only Christian and secular children who believe in him; I know Muslim families, who do not celebrate Christmas itself, but who still allow their children to leave their stockings out for Saint Nick. Ask yourself who most children really believe is the most powerful being in their lives, and then ask yourself: is Santa Claus a god?

Friday, 21 December 2012

Farewell, Great Macedon!


It’s been a couple of years since I got to do any proper international travel, but finally, I managed to get myself out of the UK for more than a day and spent a good week in the Macedonia. December isn’t the best time of year to visit the country . I’m no fan of the cold – in fact, I despise cold weather and my immediate instinct in the presence of snow is to return to bed and hibernate until it’s warm again. So visiting the city of Skopje during the winter, when the temperature happily dips ten degree below zero on the centrigrade scale, wasn’t the best decision. However, since my sister insists on having her birthday in December, and this trip was to be an extended birthday celebration for her, that was the time we had to go.

Becca had already visited Macedonia four times. One of her closest friends, Nena, lives there. As she hadn’t seen Nena for about four years,  and I hadn’t since she was here in England a couple of years earlier than that, it was definitely long past time for a visit. It’s a place I’d never been before, which is in itself enough to make me want to go, and since Nena is one of the loveliest people anyone is ever likely to meet, I was  very much looking forward to the trip. Even if it was going to be in the snow. So, a week away in a country that most Brits haven’t even heard of, with my sister and her boyfriend (who happens to be my good friend, Jim, with whom I go way back). 

The Republic of Macedonia lies north of Greece, landlocked by its fellow Balkan states. For years it has been at the centre of a dispute with Greece over its name; most of the ancient region of Macedonia lies in modern Greece. Why this is so important, I couldn’t say; there are plenty of places in the world that share names, after all. Macedonia, the nation, is the one that shows up on sporting events as “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia,” which is an incredible mouthful often shortened to FYROM. Or better shortened to Macedonia, since that’s the place’s bloody name. still, calling the main airport “Alexander the Great” was perhaps not the best move if they were trying to avoid pissing off the Greeks even more.

Skopje is the capital city, up in the north of the country, not far from the border with Kosovo. We stayed in the Urban Hostel, on Mother Teresa Street . Mother Teresa being one of two famous historical figures born in Skopje, although in her time it was part of the Ottoman Empire. The other famous figure, by the way, was the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian the Great. Anyway, the hostel was fantastic; we weren’t staying the in the main hostel bit, but on the top floor in a separate apartment, but even the bunkbeds and shared rooms looked nicer than most I’ve seen in my time. Not only did they provide slippers to all the guests (immediately putting them in my top ten places to stay), but they also gave us a bottle of wine, and a pretty decadent chocolate birthday cake for my sister. You can’t be made to feel more welcome than that.

Skopje’s not a large city, so we saw a fair bit of it during our stay. The days were mostly spent happily wandering to one corner of town or another, after a healthy lie-in, taking our time and stopping off in one of the many coffee shops along the way. The Macedonian denar has a very favourable rate of exchange to the euro and the pound, so for once we all had plenty of money to spend. It’s an odd sort of city, and it apparently looks completely different to the last time Becca visited, just a few years ago. The government has gone to great lengths to revitalise the city, but a lot of this has entailed some very artificial attempts at providing visible history. There are statues everywhere, particularly in the main square, portraying everyone from Alexander to a jolly jazz band, and in every style from baroque to modern surrealist. The addition of Christmas lights only made the mixture stranger, especially considering that Christmas isn’t until January over there (Macedonia being one of the few nations that still runs its Christian fellows according to the Julian Calendar). I rather liked it. (Incidentally, apologies for the lack of photographs – Becca was camerawoman, and shall be supplying them to me in the future.)

We took in the museums, of art and city and natural history, and even the national zoo. This was, I am told, pretty horrible a few years ago, but it has happily been the recipient of much of the revit-funding and is now a decent place, with some proper pens and enclosures for the animals. A highlight of the trip has to be visiting a zoo in the snow, and seeing a pair of lions slipping about on the ice – not something I ever thought I see. Also, the rabbits seem to have the run of the place; possibly they are, in fact, in charge. Being in a zoo made me feel quite at home, even though my zookeeper experience lasted only four weeks over four years ago.

Much time was spent at the Old Bazaar, the last bastion of the Ottomans in Skopje. Galleries are held in the Turkish bathhouses, tiny bars and cafes sit amongst shops and stalls along cobbled roads, and the whole place has the most appealing atmosphere, although I was unable to buy a hat due to the shop displaying being seemingly abandoned for the week. Evidently shopkeepers can trust their fellow Skopjens, since the wares hung outside for the course of our stay and never disappeared. However, as much as we enjoyed the architecture and the shopping and the snow-sprinkled hippos, what we shall really take back with us and treasure forever is the food and drink. Nowhere have I ever felt so full. Nowhere have I ever eaten so much meat, fat and salt. I could happily have eaten kebabs and feta and chillis, and drunk Skopkso beer and local wine all week. In fact, that’s just what we did.

Some things I learned in Skopje:
-          The Cyrillic alphabet isn’t all that hard to get used to; I reckon I’d have mastered in a couple more days, although that doesn’t mean I’d have understood any of the words.
-          Fast food places sell toast – spelt TOCT – which is actually a vast, cheesy toasted sandwich of joy.
-          Ketchup is better in Macedonia.
-          The local moonshine, rakje, could be very dangerous.
-          If you order “bacon chips” in a posh restaurant, go get a huge plateful of bacon. You may, as Jim did, follow this up with a whole pork loin.
-          The authorities have tried to curb disorder and drunkenness by banning the retail sale of alcohol after 7.pm. It hasn’t worked.
-          Pretentious arty folk look just the same in England and Macedonia.
-          Young women in Macedonia are all stunningly attractive. Young men are all tall with impressive beards. Older folk are all mostly short and haggard-looking with unhappy expressions, meaning that either things were once very different there, or that a terrible change comes upon the Macedonians in their forties.
-          If you order hot chocolate in a cafĂ©, you risk getting a bucket-sized mug of thick, molten milk chocolate.
-          Television in Macedonia is terrible, the local music is very odd, but all the radio stations play eighties classics and the bars and pubs play jazz.

So, we learned a little about the culture and the way of life. Most of all, however, we relaxed and braced ourselves for out nights out, when me met Nena and her friends and went for drinks. Becca already knew many of these people, but for me and Jim the faces were all new, which is a wonderful thing, and made it all rather like a week-long party. I made a lot of new friends, drank with a lot of fascinating people, and was thoroughly embarrassed by inability with even basic Macedonian and their proficiency at English. On the Friday, Becca’s birthday, we went to Nena’s home and met her wonderful and welcoming parents, and were presented with a meal which surpassed out ability to finish. My god, though, it was good. Those Macedonians know how to eat.

All good things come to an end, of course, and after seven nights were flew home – via a quick stopover in Zagreb, allowing a swift visit to the Christmas market and the chance for some boozed-up hot chocolate. Macedonia was my sixteenth country, Croatia my seventeenth (plus one if you’re counting my home in the UK). Not too bad going, although there are many, many more to visit yet.

On Sunday night it was Christmas drinks with the workmates. That made it eight nights on the trot, and I am getting far too old for that sort of behaviour. Certainly worth it, though. You’re only young-ish once.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

REVIEW: AHistory (3rd Ed.) by Lance Parkin and Lars Pearson


Five years ago, I reviewed the second edition of AHistory, and described it as “the essential work on Doctor Who’s torturous continuity,” and “an absolute must-have for any self-respecting Who fan.” Now the third edition’s out, and I stand by that.

I’ve now given up any hope of trying to resist the updates on these books. For Parkin and Pearson, it is not sufficient to merely bring the book up to date (or as far as is possible, in an ongoing series; this volume covers adventures released at any time up to the last day of 2011). No, each time they dive back in, they alter the parameters, creating more work for themselves than ever before. The result being that each edition of AHistory is bigger than its predecessor by roughly half, and it has now reached the point where standard printing cannot go any larger. If a fourth edition comes to be, it will either have to be separated into multiple volumes, or be published as a huge, bespoke hardback. The fifth edition will exist in its own dedicated library, while the sixth will collapse immediately into a quantum singularity.

So, this latest update not only includes all the TV episodes, novels, audios and comic strips, in the worlds of Doctor Who, Torchwood, SJA and K9, published or broadcast prior to 2012, but also a vast range of licensed spin-off material. Obvious inclusions such as the Benny books and audios are incorporated, but so is less clear-cut or more obscure  material, including Time Hunter, Graceless and that soft porn film with the Zygons in. Some inclusions are arguable; I’m hugely pleased to see the adventures of Iris Wildthyme and Faction Paradox included, but their relationship to the ongoing canon of Doctor Who is questionable at best. No matter, this time they’ve chucked everything in (almost).

There are some notable omissions. The 2010-11 Adventure Games are, oddly, not included, in spite of being marketed as canonical episodes alongside the TV series (and they only really have one outcome, unlike ‘Find Your Fate’ books and the like). Scream of the Shalka has been given the boot, while Minister of Chance, included on principle, is left out of the timeline due to being completely undateable. (No jokes about Doctor Who fans being likewise afflicted, please.) There’re bound to be arguments over where to draw the line, but it had to be drawn somewhere. This could, without care, have gone on forever; including Kaldor City, a crossover with Blake’s 7, suggests that series be included as well (I bet they were tempted). Sherlock Holmes appears more than once; should the Conan Doyle canon be included? This could get silly…

Some of the information now included makes previously unmanageable stories possible to place, while others throw information long held as gospel into question. The Beast Below, while providing firm, well-reasoned dates, is at odds with a huge section of future history - particularly annoying, seeing as there was a clear attempt to fit with previous continuity that was blatantly fluffed. Trying to get Torchwood: Miracle Day to fit, without completely screwing up the world seen in Doctor Who and SJA, would take a miracle in itself. It’s heartening that there are fellow geeks out there who care enough about this nonsense to spend the time and effort forcing these disparate works into one, reasonable coherent, narrative.

I have not read the book through; this one is so vast that it has become a dipper-into, even for me (but give me one long, quiet night, and who knows). A book that charts the adventures of dozens of heroes through over 1400 stories, from the beginning of time itself, right through the end of the Universe and out the other side… it’s not for the faint hearted. Christ, even the contents list is twenty pages long. It’s a mammoth endeavour, showing real love for Doctor Who and the works it has inspired, and any true obsessive will surely love it.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

TRAILER UP for Star Trek Into Darkness




So, what does everyone think? A fuller trailer will be shown before screenings of The Hobbit, I am told (I am not interested in seeing nine minutes of the film at the iMax - how annoying would that be, having to wait months to watch the rest?)

As pointed out by some, it does come across as a fairly generic action trailer, but then, all such trailers look pretty samey these days anyway. What little we can see gives us alien planets (looks like Kirk gets a Mustafar moment), starships crashing into the water, lots of big guns and long black coats and a definite vibe of a superhero/blockbuster/summer event movie. The jury's still out concerning who Cumberbatch is playing. Is he Khan or Mitchell? Or someone else entirely? I'd like to see the return of Captain John Christopher, the temporally displaced USAF airman from the 1960s. Twisted with rage due to something dramatic and arbitrary. Because, you know, why not?

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

REVIEW: IDW Ghostbusters 1: The Man from the Mirror



It’s about time we had an ongoing Ghostbusters comic. I used to get Marvel UK’s RGB every week when I was a tiny person, and that’s something I miss. I’m very behind, however, so I’m on to the more affordable trades until I catch up – then we’ll see about subscribing to IDW’s monthly releases.

This current series takes place firmly in the movie continuity, and follows on from the Ghostbusters II, the official video game and IDW’s earlier one-off comics and miniseries. That’s the canon, if we must use that word, at use here - with a few caveats. There are plenty of sneaky references to the RGB  cartoon series in this first volume, and they’ll only become more overt as the series continues. Hell, there are references to the toys based on the series, not to mention all manner of other Buster-related trivia. Spotting them is all part of the fun. It’s almost like Where’s Wally?

Of course, none of the minutiae matters if the story and the artwork aren’t up to scratch. Thankfully, this first story in the ongoing Ghostbusters saga is a cracking read. Erik Burnham’s script is essentially a straightforward follow-up to the original 1984 movie, but adds enough new elements into the mix to keep things from feeling stale. It’s a Ray-centric story, which is welcome, since Dr Stantz has perhaps been the least explored of the four Busters in spin-off material over the years. Beginning with a dream sequence that manages to both raise a laugh and set up the premise, by the sixth page we’ve been reintroduced to the main characters, seen the face of Gozer and the truly sublime ‘Ray Puft,’ and met Ray’s spirit guide, who is clearly the ghost of John Belushi (funny, I always thought that was Slimer).

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

REVIEW: IDW Ghostbusters Omnibus 1


If there’s one thing I adore – apart from Doctor Who, Red Dwarf and Star Trek – then it’s Ghostbusters. So it’s high time I caught up with IDW’s new comic series (actually, if IDW got the rights to Dwarf, they’d be publishing comics based on my four favourite fictional worlds.) I recently treated myself to the first IDW Ghostbusters omnibus, the first Real Ghostbusters omnibus and the first volume of the ongoing IDW strips. The Real Ghostbusters Omnibus contains reprints of the old NOW Comics released in the US. I grew up with Marvel-UK’s RBG comic, but still recognise a few of these; the two publications sometimes reprinted each other’s strips. The RGB Omnibus is great fun, but it’s a nostalgia exercise. I’m going to focus my attention on the new Ghostbusters stories.

First up is the Ghostbusters Omnibus, which collects IDW’s miniseries and one-shots in their popular omnibus format. A third of the book is taken up by the ambitious opening story, The Other Side, a dimension-hopping adventure by the wonderfully named Keith Champagne. The Ghostbuster find themselves right in the middle of a ghostly mob war, an altercation that leaves them in serious trouble. Perhaps this script could be pitched as the third Ghosbusters movie – it might finally win Bill Murray over. Murray’s already said that he’d be interested in returning if Peter Venkman could be a ghost, and in this series, that’s just what happens, when one of the phantom mobsters possesses his body, kicking Dr V. out and into the great beyond. The others aren’t long behind, finding themselves on the receiving end of a hail of bullets, but I’m sure Murray wouldn’t mind that – the unusual circumstances of Venkman’s disembodiment leave his spirit superpowered!


Saturday, 17 November 2012

WHO REVIEW: Dark Eyes

THE GREAT WAR

FUGITIVES

TANGLED WEB

'X' AND THE DALEKS

Last year’s eighth Doctor finale, To the Death, left the Doctor in a very bad place. Now, having suffered terrible losses at the hands of the Daleks, the eighth Doctor returns with a new audio box set courtesy of Big Finish. Four feature-length episodes making up a single story, epic in scope, Dark Eyes creates a whole new chapter in the Doctor’s life.

The first thing one notices about this collection is how good it looks. The cover to the box set and the individual episode covers are all beautifully rendered, with brand new, specially shot photos of stars Paul McGann and Ruth Bradley. Most notable is the Doctor’s new look. It seems strange to worry about how the character dresses in an audioplay, but it really does make a difference, establishing this as a step forward for the eighth Doctor. For years, Big Finish have had to be content with a handful of publicity shots from the ’96 TV movie, showing McGann in his velvet finery. Now, the star has finally agreed to pose for some new shots, finally allowing the series to acknowledge that the Doctor has aged and matured over the years. I love his new look, masterminded by WETA – a blue leather peacoat, a manbag, a steampunk-styled sonic screwdriver and a shorter haircut. It not only reflects McGann’s take on the character – having been designed with his input – but also acts as a step towards the ninth Doctor’s battered look, something that ties in with the character’s development.  (He still has to have his frock coat ruined by mustard gas and mud before he changes, though). Plus, McGann looks mean, rugged and more gorgeous than ever.

So, that’s enough wittering about the look of things. The important thing is how it sounds. The last run of the EDAs must have provided a hard act to follow, but Dark Eyes does not disappoint.  While the term ‘epic’ gets bandied around far too much, it really does apply to this mighty story. Stretching from the end of time, through a desperate venture in the battlefields of World War I, back and forth in the history of the British Isles, to Gallifrey itself and across space to worlds unknown, this adventure is vast in its scope. The myriad settings are brought to life by Big Finish’s typically excellent sound design, evoking terror and wonder wherever the TARDIS materialises.
McGann, of course, is excellent. Over the years, his performance for Big Finish has varied somewhat. You can tell when he’s interested in a script and when he is simply marking time. Judging by his performance here, McGann has never been more enthused by a script than he is here. It’s wonderful to hear the angrier side of this Doctor. He so often gets stuck with the overexcited, childlike side of this incarnation’s personality. McGann is at his best when his character is railing against some injustice, and never has he been angrier or more anguished than here. His hope and optimism gone, this is a Doctor acting in desperation.  Dark and moody quickly become boring, however, and it’s to the credit of Nick Brigg’s script and McGann’s performance that his new friendship with Molly brings out his more positive side once more, without ever letting the losses he’s suffered be forgotten.

Molly O’Sullivan – the latest in a long line of companions. It must be tough to come up with new characters that stand out against the crowd, but with Molly O’Sullivan they’ve managed it. Ruth Bradley is perfect in the role. Rather than using her natural, soft brogue, she makes Molly roaringly Irish. She’s a blunt, working-class country lass, one who worked in domestic service prior to travelling to France to join the Voluntary Aid Detachment with her mistress. Back in a time when Ireland was still resolutely British, she knows her place in society but nonetheless has the utmost confidence in herself. When we first meet her in No Man’s Land, she’s abrupt and pragmatic, even bitchy, hardened by what she’s seen, but her experiences with the Doctor release her cheerful, good-humoured side once again. Just like the Doctor, in fact. They’re two injured souls who need each other to begin healing, and they make among the best Doctor-companion teams the audio range has ever produced.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

REVIEW: RED DWARF X - Ep. 6 - THE BEGINNING


There are two ways to look at Red Dwarf, either as a sitcom that happens to be set in space, or as a science fiction show with jokes. Over the years, it’s tried both of these approaches, and they’ve both had a turn during this latest series. after an episode that went firmly down the sitcom route last week, for the finale Doug Naylor elected for a straighter, sci-fi adventure. That’s not to say it was low on laughs – far from it – but it wasn’t the rapid-fire of jokes and running gags that the previous episodes of this run have displayed. Nor was it light on character development, using the Simulant attack plot as a way to explore Rimmer’s deep-seated neuroses.

The episode starts unusually, with a flashback to young Rimmer’s days on Io. The poor sod not only has the overbearing father from hell, but it turns out he’s his teacher too. It’s an ingeniously scripted scene that wrings sympathy for Rimmer, before the punchline shows what a little shit he was even back then. Looking forward a big, exciting life-or-death escapade, I was a little underwhelmed at the clapped-out Simulant that boarded Red Dwarf  and began stalking its corridors. However, this was no Simulant, just Hogey the Roguey, hilariously played by Richard O’Callaghan. All this was set-up for the main plot, but provided much of the funniest material for the episode, before it got down to business. From this point, it was good, tightly-plotted stuff, with enough laughs to keep the mood from getting too grim. The scenes on the Simulant Death Ship, although removed from the crew of the Dwarf itself, were high points of the episode, with Gary Cady sublimely sinister as the Berserker Lord. As for that foul hara-kiri scene… good, sick, gory humour we haven’t seen the likes of since Series VI.


Friday, 9 November 2012

A Christmas Morality Tale

E. G. Wolverson, author of The Tally and supremo of The History of the Doctor, has released his first children's book for Kindle. Entitled Supersize vs Superskinny Santa, it's a treatise on the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, and will appeal to any young child with a nasty sense of humour (which is to say, most of them). It's illustrated by Jemma Brown and is rather glorious.

You can download it from Amazon for a mere £1.99.


Tuesday, 6 November 2012

All Hallows etc.

I had a good Hallowe'en this year. I was lucky enough to get a weekend of work - a rare treat, since I work for William Hill and the retail and leisure industries involve weekend work. I generally have to work either a Saturday or a Sunday, and they usually end up as full days. Staffing it otherwise is possible, but difficult, since splitting shifts usually means people have to work for some time on both days. So we tend to do it this way. However, I'm owed quite a lot of hours, and managed to get both Saturday and Sunday off. So I went to a Hallowe'en party - my first in years. The last one I went to was at a friend's uni digs, so we're talking a while back. I went as Zaphod Beeblebrox, a costume which caused even more problems than my choice this year.

Yep, I went as the Phantom of the Opera (or "Opera Guy," as he was dubbed at the party). This image is from the early part of the evening. You'll notice that while I lack a cape, I do have a mask firmly attached to my face. This didn't last. I'd hoped to find some cosmetics suited to the task, but I left it all a bit late. I asked my occasional ladyfriend Sekai if she had any tit-tape or eyelash glue that might do the trick, but she hadn't any with her when I saw her just before the pre-Hallows weekend. In the end, we settled on double-sided sellotape, which is pretty much what tit-tape is anyway, as I understand it. (I haven't had any call to use it before, being small-bosomed even for a man.)

It worked very well to start with. I bought a reasonably decent but reasonably-priced mask from a costume shop, one with an elastic cord to secure it to the head. This pulled it into a wonky angle, and snapped off in any case, so the mask had to be taped on. I'd trimmed it down - my nose was too big for the nasal section of the mask - and it fit quite snugly. However, eating and talking - something I do a lot of at any party - caused it to wriggle about and become detached. Eventually I gave up on the task of reattaching it, and my costume changed to "well-dressed man with sellotape on face." This wasn't as effective, but at least I was snappily attired. (The photo above fails to show my very swish two-tone opera-shoes, or the fine cut of my topcoat.)

I realised at the party that I should have thought more about this outfit. Several partygoers had used spirit gum in their make-up, and offere me some, only to all discover they'd forgotten to bring their touch up kits. Eventually I added a little fake blood to Hallowe'en up the look, so I became fairly Dracula-eqsue. In the end, I also acquired a very nice cloak from someone we'd dubbed the Scottish Widow (actually, she was Portuguese and unmarried). It was a very fun party, though. It was my flatmate's workmate's (the lovely Ela),   so I knew no one there, which is always fun. Met lots of fascinating new people. The costume turn-out was excellent, everyone put in the effort. There were two Ghostbusters - one commercially source, one home-made, with a very impressive proton pack incorporating working electronics. I hope to stay in touch and form a team next year (we need a black guy to be Winston, although he can of course arrive half way through the night). It was all good fun.

I'd decided on the Phantom last year after seeing the musical in December, as you may have read on this very blog. I'd then forgotten all about it, and had revived old, unused costume plans including van Helsing, the Goblin King and the Hitcher from The Mighty Boosh. I finally returned to the Phantom idea after waking up one morning with the score running through my head, so at least my subconscious was working away. Next year I may use one of the aforementioned characters, although as was pointed out at the party, my uncanny similarity to a young Rik Mayall would instead suggest Lord Flashheart. Or Richard Richard. Or Fred, of Drop Dead Fred. All nicely retro.

Hallowe'en isn't huge in the UK on the whole, not like in the US, but it's becoming more and more popular. Certainly down in Sussex, it's eclipsed by Guy Fawkes Night. Generally, clashing commitments would mean choosing one or the other, but this year I had enough free time to enjoy both! Sadly, I am utterly stuffed full of cold viruses, so have decided to sit this one out. Still, I had a good Hallowe'en, and joined friends and familiars in enjoying some classic spooky-themed movies, including Cushing-Lee-Troughton starring The Gorgon, and our traditional Ghostbusters double-bill. Also Batman Forever, for some reason - on VHS! Ah, the memories of 1996...

Now, I just need to work out what the hell I'm doing for New Year's.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

REVIEW: RED DWARF X - Ep 5. DEAR DAVE...




This latest run of Red Dwarf has made great use of running gags, and has also harked back to the popular early days of the series. Both of these elements reached their peak in this week’s episode. In fact, Dear Dave… is comprised almost entirely of running jokes, with various comedy set-pieces peppered in to keep things moving. The love triangle, such as it is, between Lister and two vending machines; Rimmer’s attempts to prove he is not derelict of duty; the reallocation of toilet paper away from “toilet active” crewmembers; Lister’s impending fatherhood; these are all played for the length of the episode, culminating in the final two scenes.

None of these plot strands would be out of place in Red Dwarf’s first or second series. The earliest days of the show focussed less on sci-fi concepts and more on Lister’s isolation and his painful relationship with Rimmer. From the outset, when we see Lister in his red long johns wistfully reminiscing about the human race, it’s easy to imagine this as a scene from the grey-tinted early years. Only Kryten’s presence is out of place (and even he originated in the first episode of Series II).

With the Rimmer’s report-writing and talking amenities on board ship, this really is a throwback to the early years, although in the old days the vending machines were all masculine and the show was a lot less sweary (but only because they couldn’t get away with it back then). Chuck a few skutters in, and it’d be hard to tell the difference between this episode and Balance of Power, and the last mail pod arrived back in Better Than Life (eight series and 23 years ago!)

It’s an obvious bottle episode, clearly made to save money before the big, end-of-season blowout, but this isn’t to its detriment. The regular cast all get a chance to shine, and the Cat in particular gets a couple of stand-out scenes (“finger-wetting machine” is destined to become a favourite obscene euphemism). The only guest cast member, Isla Ure, perfectly pitches both the love struck Vending Machine 34 and the exotic Vending Machine 23 (with a surprisingly sexy way of saying “logo.”)

There are some great moments once again, and although the final vending machine love scene is very contrived, it made me laugh like the smutty schoolboy I was when I first discovered Red Dwarf. The celebrated charades scene isn’t, to my mind, as funny as some find it, although I’d love to know where Rimmer’s getting this “giant death worm” obsession from. Tellingly, most of the clips shown in the lead-up to this grand comeback were from this episode. This highlights the only real problem with Dear Dave… while all the elements work well in themselves, and there are plenty of memorable jokes, the whole thing fails to gel in the way most of the previous episodes have (I’m excepting the divisive Lemons instalment).

It’s easy to pick holes in the plotlines, if you’re looking to. Why does Rimmer need to come up with an excuse for his dereliction of duty? He’s got the perfect one, he’s dead! And after last week, we know what Lister would do if an attractive woman suddenly arrived on the ship; he’d let Rimmer get to her first and then accidentally get her sucked out an air lock. Lister’s possible fatherhood, however, provides the spine for the episode to hang off, even if he was knocked out in the finals.

Good Psycho Guide: Three-and-a-half chainsaws

Best Line:  “As long as it’s wet and melty you don’t care where you stick it.” (Lister’s been dunking his biscuits in the fish tank.)

Sunday, 28 October 2012

REVIEW: RED DWARF X - Ep. 4 ENTANGLED



Entangled is a step back in the right direction for the Dwarfers. It manages to juggle three disparate sci-fi plot strands, and just about manages from collapsing under the weight, spurred along by a succession of successful, rapid-fire gags. The A-plot backs the episode up nicely, with the recurring coincidences being a far more successful running gag than the previous episodes have managed. The sci-fi oriented episode of Red Dwarf have always done well, as long as there’s enough mileage to be gained from the central concept. Having Kryten and the Cat become quantum entangled is a cute idea, if presented completely nonsensically, but would have run out steam pretty quickly on its. Instead, it runs alongside two successive B-plots. The Biologically-Engineered Garbage Gobblers, or BEGGS, are just GELFs under a new name. The ropey costumes make them look like particularly battered Kinatawowi from Series VI or VII, but they serve their purpose, providing some decent comedy material while Lister tries to persuade to deactivate his ‘knacker cracker’ groin exploder. Just when it looks like they’re going to run out of funny material for these guys, they kill them off, and move onto the next sequence.


Wednesday, 24 October 2012

The Anniversary takes shape

Finally, details are creeping out concerning the plans for Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary. Nothing much on the plans for the TV series, although the second half of series 7 has been outlined (two episodes from Mark Gatiss and one from Neil Gaiman!), but the expanded universe continues expanding.

An audio event was a dead cert, but the surprising thing is that the BBC and Big Finish are joining forces to create a series of audiobooks. Sounds like they'll be along the same lines as the Companion Chronicles series, with a main narrator and a guest voice. Sounds like a great idea; the rights issues can be circumvented, allowing Big Finish to bring their expertise to the new Doctors. This audio alliance is planning a  run of stories, one for each Doctor, one per month right through to an eleventh Doctor story in November. The first story has been named as Hunters from Earth, is narrated by Carole Ann Ford, as Susan, and is set before the very first episode of the TV series. Exciting stuff, and it's great news that we'll be getting a new ninth Doctor story (there were so very few during Eccleston's brief run), although how my wallet will deal with eleven audiobooks is another matter.


IDW, the current owners of Doctor Who's international comic rights, will be going down a similar route. This series, entitled Prisoners in Time, will be twelve issues long, with an adventure for each Doctor. What of issue twelve? Well, an eleven-Doctor team-up is the sort of thing only the comics can really do...

Finally, BBC books are republishing eleven novels - once again, one for each Doctor. The list has been released, to some discussion. They're not the books I'd have chosen to represent the series, but there are some crackers in there. Last of the Gaderene is a great bit of traditionally-styled third Doctor fun, while Only Human is the best of the ninth Doctor's limited run. There's a few there I haven't read yet, so I may well pick them up, and the new covers are absolutely gorgeous. It's a shame that there a no Virgin novels in the pack, but I guess that's a rights thing. It's odd that they've chosen the novelisation of Remembrance of the Daleks; it's a great book, but stretching it to match the others in format will take some big old type. Surely it would have made more sense to release that as part of a third run of novelisation reprints, and use an original novel for the seventh Doctor release?


If you're interested, my line-up would have been (assuming no Virgin novels allowed and no duplication of authors):

The Time Travellers by Simon Guerrier
The Final Snaction by Steve Lyons
Last of the Gaderene by Mark Gatiss
Festival of Death by Jonathan Morriss
can't suggest a fifth Doctor one without resorting to the Virgin MAs (Crystal Bucephalus by Craig Hinton for the record)
The Shadow in the Glass by Stephen Cole and Justin Richards
Heritage by Dale Smith
The Year of Intelligent Tigers by Kate Orman
Only Human by Gareth Roberts
Prisoner of the Daleks by Trevor Baxendale
The Coming of the Teraphiles by Michael Moorcock
plus The Infinity Doctors by Lance Parkin as an extra. Damn, no room for Paul Magrs... perhaps we can have thirteen? The Blue Angel does involve a future Doctor, however briefly...

Friday, 19 October 2012

WHO REVIEW: The Lost Stories 3.6 - 3.8

THE FIRST SONTARANS
THE MASTERS OF LUXOR
THE ROSEMARINERS

I love a Doctor Who audioplay, but Big Finish have rather flooded the market of late. It’s hard to keep up with all the releases  across the various ranges. Even if you have the money, it’s unlikely you have the time to listen to all of them. So I’ve been cherry-picking those that tickle my fancy. Big Finish have recently started a sneaky tactic, though; they release the first episode of many of their upcoming releases as free podcasts. The swines! Get me into a story with a single episode ending on a cliffhanger…

Thus I have just listened to the final three releases in the third series of BF’s Lost Stories range. I can’t say that I’ve been a determined follower of this series; while it’s fascinating to learn about stories that almost made it to TV, some ideas sound more entertaining than others. Some make me wonder how the production team could have let such a winning idea go; others make question how the writer ever thought they had a chance with it. This latest run has, however, ended on a particularly intriguing run of stories, and I was drawn in once again.

The First Sontarans is written by Andrew Smith, the man who was once the boy who gave us Full Circle, in 1981. I’m very fond of that serial, and it’s a shame Smith never had any more scripts commissioned for the series. It seems that The First Sontarans didn’t make the cut simply because the season it was submitted for – the 22nd, in 1985 – already had a Sontaran story lined up. Robert Holmes’s The Two Doctors was that year’s Sontaran escapade, and while I’m a fan of that gruesome story, I can’t help but feel that Smith’s contribution would have made a better serial. 

As the title suggests, The First Sontarans deals with the spud-heads’ origins. However, it has very little in common with such stories as Genesis of the Daleks or the Cyber-origin tales Spare Parts and Rise of the Cybermen. Beginning on the Moon, before heading to 19th century England, this story transplants the Sontarans into a historical setting, much as their first appearance, The Time Warrior, did in 1973. The sixth Doctor and Peri find themselves embroiled in a war between the Sontarans and the Kavitch, the latter having made their homes on Earth to escape the conflict. However, one Kavitch scientist, Roach, has been experimenting on his enemies to find a way to win the war. It’s very similar to this year’s  A Town Called Mercy, only this was first submitted back in 1984!

The First Sontarans rises above every Sontaran story on TV save the very first, due to some beautiful performances and excellent writing. Significantly, it brings the Rutans into the fold, not only upping the danger in the story itself but bringing all the elements of the mythology together. It’s bizarre that in all these years we’ve never seen the Sontarans and Rutans meet in battle in the series. The revelation of the relationship between the Sontarans and Kavitch isn’t such a shock; still, I won’t spoil it here for those who haven’t heard it. Suffice to say, it’s very fitting and the eventual reveal is perfectly played. How it fits in with the various stabs at exploring the Sontarans in the expanded universe I don’t know, but as far as I’m concerned, Smith’ s account is the true history of the Sontarans.

Following this, the series jumps further back in time, to the most famous of all unmade stories: The Masters of Luxor. Well known among fans as the story that was almost made as the second ever serial, The Masters of Luxor (aka The Robots) became famous when the full script was published back in the 90s. It’s a fascinating glimpse at how the series might have progressed, and is perhaps a purer vision of Doctor Who,  free of the dreaded BEMs that were initially forbidden by the production team. Anthony Coburn followed up the evolutionary themes of  his own script for the very first serial (An Unearthly Child/The Tribe of Gum/100,000 BC, delete according to taste) by extrapolating human evolution further into the future, and questioning what it means to be human.

Nigel Robinson adapts the original script, bringing it more in line with the series as we know it. In fairness, the scriptbook release did the same, although to a lesser degree (changing Sue/Suzanne for Susan, for instance). Robinson’s version refers back to earlier Lost Stories release Farewell, Great Macedon, in a laudable attempt to fit this story into continuity, and plays down the most intriguing element of the original, the Doctor’s discussion of God. Although religious overtones are still present in this story – it does, after all, concern a man playing God in his attempted creation of a new, perfect being – the downplaying of it on the Doctor’s side loses something. Surely the whole point of these Lost Stories is to see how the series might have been had things progressed differently. Changing them to fit the format we know seems to be missing the point.

Luxor is a slow, verbose, thoughtful sort of story, and could probably stand to lose an episode or two. It is, however, superior as science fiction to The Daleks, the story that eventually took its place in the line-up. This is a fine production, in the enhanced audiobook style previously used for the First Doctor Lost Stories set and The Companion Chronicles. William Russell and Carole Ann Ford are both excellent, as always, in their original roles; and, although I’m not taken with Ford’s version of Barbara, Russell’s Doctor appeals to me. Joseph Kloska is also very impressive as the third cast member, portraying the ultimate android, the Perfect One, full of self-assured, masculine arrogance.

Finally comes the second Doctor adventure The Rosemariners. Written by Donald Tosh, script editor through much of William Hartnell’s tenure, it’s a corking space adventure. The Troughton stories were famous for their monsters, and The Rosemariners is no exception; however, I don’t think the Yeti, Ice Warriors or Quarks quite compare to carnivorous, motile rosebushes. The Rosmeariners are the humanoid natives of Rosa Damascena, under the thrall of the evil Rugosa (a fabulously sinister turn by Clive Wood). Rugosa has plants of every description, including, yes, Dalek-bred killer roses. Quite how this would have been visualised is anyone’s guess, though they did manage to make a seaweed monster work, so maybe they could have pulled it off. It’s a wonderfully out-there script, covering mind-control, scientific elitism and alien dopplegangers.

Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury do the bulk of the acting, performing not only their familiar characters of Jamie and Zoe, but also much of the supporting cast. Hines brings the second Doctor to uncanny life in the way that only he can; you could easily walk in on someone listening to this and assume it was an genuine recording of Patrick Troughton. Other than the two stars and Clive Wood, David Warner attends as Professor Biggs, a new ally for the Doctor; he is, as always, a joy to listen to. I feel Big Finish missed a trick by making this another taking book-style production. Other than the necessary impersonation of Troughton, having Hines and Padbury robs this of much of its urgency and vitality. It would have worked better, I feel, as a full-cast audioplay, something achievable with only a handful more actors. Nonetheless, it’s a very appealing production, bringing to life an imaginative story with real verve.

Big Finish have announced a final series of Lost Stories for next year, featuring only the first, second and third Doctors. I’ll start putting some pocket money aside.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

REVIEW: RED DWARF X - Ep. 3: LEMONS


It’s one of those well-known stories. At a showing of The Holy Grail, Eric Idle quipped that the Pythons’ next film was going to be titled ‘Jesus Christ: Lust for Glory.’ The six comic gods tried to use this as the basis for a film, but it went nowhere. As they said, the “comedy just dried up” whenever Jesus was around. So they came up with the idea of a film about someone who lived at the same time as Jesus, and who was mistaken for him. The Life of Brian was born, and passed into comedy history.

‘Lemons’ takes a similar sort of idea, but entirely fails to make it work. The conceit of having the Dwarfers meet Jesus Christ is a diamond, and should be a source of some excellent comedy. And sure, it has its moments. The trek across Eurasia to find lemons is a funny idea, Rimmer’s fanboy reaction to another famous historical figure is a great Arnie moment, and the ‘Last Supper’ parody is quite fun, even if it is tragically unoriginal. There’s not enough though. The problem is, the laughs do dry up when Jesus is around. The bag joke is funny for a bit, but is dragged on too long, and while having Jesus start attacking the concept of Christianity (or Judaism, really, since it’s all Old Testament) could be used a source of biting satire, it’s rapidly thrown away after some very half-hearted comments. The best joke - the "Jesus!" "Yes?" reveal - was given away in the trailer. Geordie Jesus turns out to be a case of mistaken identity, but by this stage, it’s hard to give a damn anyway.



Rimmer really is the best thing in this episode. Chris Barrie gets the best material, and makes good use of it. His family were in the Church of Judas –  I thought they were Seventh Day Advent Hoppists? If Doug Naylor and the producers are going to bring on old musical cues to appease fan nostalgia, they need to remember that we’ve seen this all before. The Dwarfers have gone back in time and met historical figures plenty of times before. Apart from the impressive sets, there’s nothing to set this apart from earlier, better examples. ‘Meltdown,’ the weakest  episode of Series IV, did the juxtaposition of historical men of peace with futuristic tech much better, and got a better Gandhi joke out of it.

Oh, and I take it Kochanski’s coming back at the end of the series? “Finding Kochanski” has been mentioned by Lister once in each episode. Will she rescue them all from Simulants in episode six?

Good Psycho Guide: Two Chainsaws

Cultural Reflections: The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks


The Culture novels are full of intriguing details that hint at a vast, under-explored universe beyond what little we’ve been permitted to see. In The Hydrogen Sonata, the latest novel in the series, Banks finally explores something that has existed on the fringes of the Culture universe since the very first book, 1987’s Consider Phlebas: the Sublimed.

For a long while now Banks has released a trickle of information regarding the Sublimed, those civilisations and Minds that have reached such a level of development as to take the next step in their evolution, and have left the material plane altogether. Tenuously linked to the material universe and still able to influence it in some ways, the Sublimed are distantly removed and remain the one great enigma of the Culture universe. This novel doesn’t tell us much about the physical realities of Subliming, the truth, inevitably, being beyond what our pitiful mortal minds can understand. Instead, Banks takes the more interesting track of exploring how, when and why a civilisation would consider upping sticks to another plane of reality (something the Culture themselves have resisted for their long history).

The results are characteristically cynical. The Gzilt, a semi-reptilian humanoid species, have reached the stage in their history at which Sublimation is the next logical step, and have seemingly decided upon it as a ‘now-or-never’ opportunity. Counting down their final twenty-four days of material existence, the Gzilt wallow in their petty politics, their martially organised culture breaking apart under the strain, after millennia of determined peace. A violent incident against a Culture ship kicks off a sequence of events that threaten to destabilise the whole process. Gzilt politicians manipulate their alien allies to cover their backs for long enough to reach the big day, after which, nothing will matter ever again.


Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Let's go meet the neighbours!

Alpha Centauri has a planet.

That's Alpha flippin' Centauri. The triple star system just over four light years away, the closest star system to our own. That's NEXT DOOR, in galactic terms. Hell, it's practically here. And to think I got enthused about Epsilon Eridani...

For anyone not in the know, Alpha Centauri is comprised of three stars: Alpha Centauri A, Alpha Centauri B, and Proxima Centauri. A Cen A and B are both Sun-like stars, A being slightly larger and brighter, B being somewhat smaller and dimmer, and they form a binary pair. Proxima is a dim, old red dwarf, possibly captured by the binary pair, that orbits them at a distance of about a tenth of a light year and is currently, at 4.2 ly, the closest individual star to the Sun.

The new planet orbits A Cen B, and so its systematic name is Alpha Centauri Bb (but surely they'll come up with a proper name for such a nearby planet?) It was found after four years of studying the tiny Doppler shift in the starlight created by the planet's gravity, something extremely difficult to measure accurately. So, it's something of a milestone in planetary detection, even disregarding its proximity.

The planet is fairly unremarkable in itself. It's very low mass, approximately that of the Earth, but its also extremely close to its parent star, so is likely to have a surface temperature of over 1200 Kelvin. So there's no chance of friendly Alpha Centaurians living there. However, stars with one planet frequently turn out to have several more, so the hunt is on for more Centaurian planets; indeed, there's some suspicion that a planet  is orbiting Proxima, although this is unconfirmed.

SETI are getting ready to scan the direction of Alpha Centauri for possible radio signals, and presumably agencies will be looking at sending their own signals towards it. After all, it'll only take four years or so for a message to get there...



Lots more on the discovery here:

http://io9.com/5952357/scientists-discover-a-planet-in-alpha-centauri-the-star-system-nearest-earth
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-19959531
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alpha_Centauri_Bb

Monday, 15 October 2012

Planet Hunters

Just been reading the latest extrasolar planet news. The newly publicised planet PH1 is extremely cool for two reasons. Firstly, it was discovered by two volunteers at Planethunters.org, and secondly, it's got four suns!

PH1 is a Neptune-sized planet in a system around 5000 light years distant. The planet orbits a binary star - pretty fantastic in itself, seeing that such circumbinary planets were only confirmed to be possible a few years ago. Now, that binary pair, and beyond PH1 itself, orbit two more stars, in a second binary pair at a distance of roughly 1000 AU.

This is described as a 'hierarchical quadruple star system" featuring a planet orbiting an eclipsing binary. This is unexpected. When the two volunteer astronomers, K. Jek and R. Gagliano, reported their findings to Planethunters, the professionals got on the case and took a proper look at the system, confirming the analysis. They were understandably dubious of such a finding, since common consensus holds that such a system is impossible. The combined gravitational pulls of the four stars would be expected to tear the planet apart. Yet, there it is, happily orbiting one pair primarily and the next secondarily (much as the Moon orbits the Earth, and the Earth-Moon system orbits the Sun).

It's all a bit of a headscratcher. Plenty more information at io9 and arxiv.org

Sunday, 14 October 2012

REVIEW: RED DWARF X Ep 2 - FATHERS AND SUNS


My faith is small rouge one is restored. After an OK sort of start, the second episode of the series was a cracker.

There are fewer actual jokes this time round, but the overall effect is something much more consistently entertaining, with decent sci-fi conceits at its core and some excellent character moments for Rimmer and Lister. The early part of the episode, with Rimmer carping on about the whining in his ears, while Lister got soppy over his Father’s Day card, showed just how these characters should be portrayed now. The cast are getting older, there’s no getting away from that, so why not make a virtue of it? A whinier than ever Rimmer against an increasingly soft, gummy Lister would work. Not that we want Last of the Summer Wine in space (they couldn’t find enough baths to slide down hills, for a start), but four old gits on a spaceship has plenty of mileage for a sitcom.


Lister’s father-son relationship with himself is a little touch of genius. It takes a concept from the series’ past (the underrated Series VII) and uses it to create a brilliant new piece of character-driven comedy. Craig Charles switches between crabby old dad and defiant son with aplomb, his arguing with himself being some of the funniest material in the episode. Lister Sr’s drunken video letter to his son is brilliantly done, with just enough drunken slapstick, and leads up to the best moment of the episode: the fake guitar gag. Yet it furthers the plot and ties in nicely to the other side of the story, that of the new computer.


Rebbecca Blackstone gives a sharp, quick-fire performance as the coldly logical Pree, the predictive computer. Having had messages finished for me with disturbing accuracy by my phone (I guess I’m just predictable) I love the idea of a computer that saves time by predicting your own actions. Pree’s cold if skewed logic leads to some brilliant comedy moments, before providing the threat the episode needs for its second half. The episode builds to an effective action sequence, that is finally resolved with an ingenious tying together of the episode’s two plot points.


Some elements don’t work quite as well. I’m undecided on the Medi-Bot – it’s tending just too far to the annoying side of quirky – and the Chinese Whispers joke feels contrived and is not nearly funny enough. However, this episode hits far more often than it misses. The roster of vending machines, each with their own personality, is another reworking of an element of the show’s past (and presumably leads into the upcoming love triangle episode, ‘Dear Dave). If the series continues to develop along these lines, we should be in for some real treats. I’m very much looking forward to next week’s celebrity historical.

Good Psycho Guide: Four Chainsaws.

Best Line: “You predicted that I’d cock it up, so you cocked it up for me?”

Sunday, 7 October 2012

By the fans, for the fans

If you're a Doctor Who fan, and you're missing the show now that first mini-season has finished (only five episodes and now we have to wait till Christmas? Bah!) then you should take a gander at these. Two fan productions, just released, that will help fill the TARDIS-shaped hole in your life.

First of all, there's the third and final part of Power of the Daleks, the reimagined version of the lost Patrick Troughton classic. Adapted, directed and starring Nick Scovell, this is twenty-three minutes of cracking Dalek action. Produced by TNT Films and with music by Everybody Else, this is well worth watching if you need a little extra Who to keep you going till the winter. Don't worry if you're already super-familiar with the original serial; Nick and co. have reworked the story into a riveting modern adventure. The Daleks look fantastic, and sound even better, with voices by official BBC Dalek supremo Nick Briggs. Watch part three here, or go back and watch it from the beginning.

Not enough? Prefer your fiction a little more literary? Not to fear, for the Doctor Who Project, the acclaimed Canadian Doctor Who fanfic series has just published the first story in its new season (the thirty-eighth!), 'The Mask of Anhur' by the very talented Robert Mammone. This is my reading for tonight, if I've been good and done all my chores.

Sorry to say I shan't be contributing to Season 38 after all. My on-again, off-again story has finally switched to off. I have had some real issues getting this piece right, and not enough free time to give it the focus it deserves. But not to fret - 'Timebase' is still a work in progress, and TDWP chief Bob Furnell and I plan to release it in the near future, before the publication of the upcoming Season 39 (already in the planning stages).